Modern Egypt ­— (XIII) The curator of beauty

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 10 Jan 2023

Playwright and novelist Tawfik Al-Hakim was first and foremost an artist who hoped to imbue society with a love of the aesthetic, writes Tarek Osman in his series of articles on modern Egyptian culture


Unlike the other figures this series has presented, Tawfik Al-Hakim was first and foremost an artist. 

A playwright, novelist, and writer of short stories, Al-Hakim wrote for both the intellectual elite and the masses. He worked with filmmakers and theatre producers on films and plays based on his writings. In one such film, he played an elderly man facing his younger self. Though he came across as a bit nervous in front of the camera, he later confided to a friend that he had relished the experience. 

Like all artists, Al-Hakim wanted an audience, and he found one. Several of his plays and stories were immortalised in some of the most successful films ever made by Egyptian cinema, including by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, modern Egypt’s and the Arab world’s preeminent musician. 

Al-Hakim gave his audience various genres, from historical dramas with unmissable reflections on the politics of modern Egypt, to satires often revolving round a highly deprecated version of himself, to comedies anchored on the joie de vivre of Egypt’s liberal age from the early 1920s to early 1950s. 

Most of his work, especially the stories that were made into theatrical and cinematic productions, were lighthearted, yet they were far from being intellectually vacuous. 

Often there was a playfulness in them. For a period, Al-Hakim cultivated a reputation as “the enemy of women,” but behind the caricature there was a man deeply in love with feminine beauty and acutely aware of feminine power, which for him became bewitching when it combined beauty with brightness. 

Perhaps his finest play is Scheherazade, which extrapolates the famous Thousand and One Nights story into an imaginary future in which Shahryar, the masculine figure in the play, is not only reformed by life with Scheherazade, but also comes to appreciate that his ascension towards perfection is a function of his deciphering the magic of the feminine ideal.

Al-Hakim was a connoisseur of beauty. He searched for it and generated it in words and sentences and scenes and dialogues. His inspiration, however, was his sense of the beauty in different cultures. Al-Hakim presented two journeys from and to Western civilisation, particularly its Greek and French variants, in which he presented what ancient Egypt had given them and what modern Egypt needed to take and internalise from their treasures. 

However, unlike many of the luminaries of modern Egyptian culture, in these journeys of the mind Al-Hakim was not overly interested in political and social structures or in abstract philosophy. He pursued beauty in prose and poetry, in architecture and design, and in art and fashion. Whereas, for example, Taha Hussein, the subject of an earlier article in this series, compared the ideas of the French dramatist Racine to those of the mediaeval Arab poet Abul-Alaa Al-Maari, Al-Hakim juxtaposed the beauty in their words. 

The recurring undercurrents of harmony and beauty and pleasure in his work, presented subtly but beautifully in flowing and digestible Arabic, made Al-Hakim the darling of Egypt’s liberal classes. He gave them images of the Egypt they loved, and he connected this beautiful Egypt with the West, particularly with France, at the time the cultural Mecca of the liberal classes. 

For some, Al-Hakim crossed the line from a connoisseur of beauty to a seducer. Unlike almost all the figures this series has presented so far, he did not cast a critical eye on Egypt’s historical experience let alone its societal characteristics. 

Some of his early works, most notably his most famous, “The Diary of a Country Prosecutor,” were subtle exposures of hardwired problems in Egypt’s interior. But he wrapped his exposure in velvety prose, layered analogies, and flights to the esoteric, which made this work (and others in the same vein) hardly analytical, let alone truly critical.  

Al-Hakim’s critics have a point. He generally evaded confrontation, whether with the authorities or with the prevailing preferences of the masses. He did not indulge in populism, but he was hardly a Taha Hussein or an Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad whose drives to expose what they considered to be the ills of society led them into acute confrontations that they neither skirted nor tried to evade their costs.

But artists are different from philosophers. Perhaps their role is not to ignite fires, and potentially end up burning at the stake, but rather to induce the love of the aesthetic in society, which will naturally give rise to the need to reflect, improve, beautify, and evolve. 

There was another reason that Al-Hakim avoided any such bluntness. He held back a part of himself, a special intellectual compartment that he allowed only a few glimpses of. This compartment held his thinking on divinity and its relationship with humanity. He chose not to publish the papers he wrote on these subjects and confided them to friends who respected his wishes.  

This is a loss. Al-Hakim approached divinity with the veneration of a believer and the love of a devotee seeking to approach it, yet he also raised questions that he deemed crucial for understanding. Like many seekers, he needed to situate his belief within the knowledge he had acquired, which in his case was vast and came from the depths of the Egyptian and French cultures. 

Al-Hakim gave his readers glimpses of these questions in short stories that explore the meaning of good and evil, judgement and punishment and reward, and the notion of divine justice. But he kept his attempts at answers to himself and to the select group of readers to which he entrusted these papers.

During the late stage of his life, Al-Hakim was not a thinker with definitive conclusions. He was not a Nietzsche, for example. Perhaps if the thoughts that he kept back had found a wider audience, perhaps in a more permissive social environment, his contribution to modern Egyptian culture would have been more than just artistic. 

His contribution, perhaps also to Islamic philosophy, could have been similar to that of the Russian thinker Nicolai Berdaeyev, who initially challenged, but through his intellectual journey ended up hugely enriching, Christian Orthodoxy.

Tawfik Al-Hakim was a lighthearted commentator on public affairs in his eighties. He neither retreated into a cocoon living in his memories, nor grumpily rejected the new art movements that took Egypt by storm in the last quarter of the 20th century, even though these were vastly different from the trends he had helped to shape decades earlier. 

Instead, he questioned himself, his generation, and the arts he had helped to propagate. He was never bitter, but instead always imbued his scepticism about what his work had all meant with ample doses of sarcasm and hilarity. He remained an artist until the end.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: